by Jon White
June 6, 2018
When American Pharoah sought to sweep the Triple Crown in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, I not only picked him to win here at Xpressbet.com, I listed 10 reasons why I thought he would do it. I also listed five concerns.
American Pharoah came through. He won the Belmont by 5 1/2 lengths to end a 37-year Triple Crown drought.
Now, three years later, Justify tries to follow in American Pharoah’s footsteps. It is my belief that Justify is going to come through this Saturday and win the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes to become this country’s 13th Triple Crown winner. I not only am of the opinion that Super J is going to win, I think there is a good chance he will do so by a comfortable margin.
Justify will break from post position No. 1. He has been installed as the 4-5 morning-line line favorite by David Aragona, oddsmaker for the New York Racing Association tracks.
As I see it, Justify has something in common with each of the three of Triple Crown winners of the 1970s.
Justify, like 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, is a big, gorgeous, chestnut equine athlete who has an exceptionally long stride and is poetry in motion.
Bob Baffert, Justify’s trainer, said this week the colt stands 16 hands, 3 inches tall and “weighs like 1,270 pounds.” On Oct. 22 when Secretariat was 3, he was meticulously measured by Dr. Manuel Gilman, the official veterinarian at the New York Racing Association tracks. Secretariat’s height was 16 hands, 1/2-inch tall. He weighed 1,131 pounds.
What similarity do I see between Justify and 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew? Justify, like Seattle Slew, is taking an undefeated record into the Belmont. If Justify succeeds this Saturday, he and Seattle Slew would be the only two to win the Triple Crown with an unblemished record. Justify also would become only the second Triple Crown winner sold previously at public auction. Seattle Slew was a $17,500 yearling. Justify was a $500,000 yearling.
In what way do I find a correlation between Justify and 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed? Affirmed had a tremendous will to win. Alydar certainly found that out the hard way, over and over and over again. When Justify won the Santa Anita Derby, he did so by turning back not one, but two serious challenges by Bolt d’Oro. And Justify especially displayed Affirmed-like pluck to prevail by a half-length in the Preakness.
These are my selections for this year’s Belmont Stakes:
3. Vino Rosso
Here are 10 reasons why I believe Super J is going to win this Saturday’s Belmont:
1. HIS BEYER SPEED FIGURES. Justify should win because he is the fastest horse in the race. Period. It’s just that simple.
Justify has recorded a Beyer Speed Figure of 101 or higher four times. The rest of the field in the Belmont has not recorded a Beyer of 100 or higher in 59 starts combined.
Justify dipped to a career-low 97 in the Preakness. But even his 97 is a better figure than anyone else in this year’s Belmont has ever recorded with the exception of Vino Rosso’s 98 when he won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
To put Jusify’s Beyer power into perspective, these are the 10 highest Beyer Speed Figures recorded by the horses entered in the Belmont:
107 Justify (won Santa Anita Derby on April 7)
104 Justify (won Santa Anita maiden race on Feb. 18)
103 Justify (won Kentucky Derby on May 5)
101 Justify (won Santa Anita allowance/optional claimer on March 11)
98 Vino Rosso (won Wood Memorial on April 7)
97 Justify (won Preakness on May 19)
96 Bravazo (2nd in Preakness on May 19)
95 Tenfold (3rd in Preakness on May 19)
95 Noble Indy (won Louisiana Derby on March 24)
94 Hofburg (2nd in Florida Derby on March 31)
American Pharoah’s average Beyer Speed Figure for his six wins going into the Belmont was 1:02.3. Justify’s average for his five wins going into the Belmont is 102.4.
Something else to keep in mind is Justify’s best Beyer Speed Figures of 107 and 104 have come on fast tracks. What if the track is fast this Saturday and he posts a Beyer of 104 or higher? If that happens, it is going to be a very tall order for his nine opponents to outrun him.
2. BOB BAFFERT IS THE TRAINER. What trainer could anyone want other than Baffert when going for a Triple Crown sweep? We know the white-haired Hall of Famer can win the Triple Crown because he already has done it. He did it with American Pharoah.
Baffert is the only active trainer who has won the Triple Crown. And he is just a nose away from going for a third Triple Crown. Baffert came within a nose of a Triple Crown sweep with Real Quiet in 1998. In my opinion, if Kent Desormeaux had ridden more patiently rather than open a big lead coming into the stretch, Real Quiet would have won the Belmont and the Triple Crown.
If Justify wins this Saturday, it will be Baffert’s 15th victory in a Triple Crown race. Baffert would become the all-time leader by breaking a tie with D. Wayne Lukas.
Baffert has two Belmont Stakes victories to his credit. He won it with Point Given in 2001 and American Pharaoh in 2015.
A triumph by Justify this Saturday also would enable Baffert to join the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to win the Triple Crown twice. Fitzsimmons won it with Gallant Fox in 1930, then with Gallant Fox’s son Omaha in 1935.
3. MIKE SMITH IS THE JOCKEY. Granted, unlike Baffert, Hall of Famer Smith has not already won a Triple Crown. The only active rider to have done that is Victor Espinoza, who did it with American Pharoah.
But Smith is so darn good at coming through when the pressure is on in big races that he’s now known as Big Money Mike Smith. I do not expect him to make a crucial miscalculation on Justify in the 2018 Belmont a la the aforementioned Desormeaux on Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont or Ron Franklin aboard Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont.
In my opinion, when it comes to bad Belmont rides, Franklin’s takes the cake. Franklin pushed Spectacular Bid way too hard way too soon. Heading to the far turn, Franklin rode Spectacular Bid with the urgency of someone in the Wild West who had just robbed a bank and was being chased by a posse.
According to Bud Delp, who trained Spectacular Bid, the colt stepped on a safety pin in his stall the morning of the Belmont Stakes.
“He was lame the morning of the Belmont,” Delp told me when I interviewed him at his Pimlico barn in 2004. “I thought I might have to scratch him. But when the foot seemed fine after we treated it, I told [owner] Harry [Meyerhoff], ‘We’re going to run.’ I just wish I hadn’t told Ronnie [Franklin] about the safety pin. I think that’s one of the reasons he rode him so bad in the Belmont. I think he was trying to get the race over as soon as he possibly could.”
Delp said Franklin’s ride on Spectacular Bid in the Belmont made him “feel sick.”
Spectacular Bid had a three-length lead at the quarter pole, but he had been asked so much by then that he had little fuel left in the tank for the final quarter-mile. He came home on fumes and finished third, 3 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Coastal. When heavily favored (3-10) Spectacular Bid was upset in the 1979 Belmont by Coastal (4-1), it started an excruciatingly long Triple Crown drought that would last for 37 years.
After the exhibition of ineptitude by Franklin in the 1979 Belmont, he never rode Spectacular Bid in another race. Bill Shoemaker took over. As a team, Spectacular Bid and Shoemaker lost just once in 13 starts. In that one loss, they finished second, only a half-length behind Triple Crown winner Affirmed and Laffit Pincay Jr., in the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in 1979.
It’s also consequential that Smith has extensive experience riding at Belmont Park. The main track, a 1 1/2-mile oval, has fooled many a jockey who has not ridden on it very much. There are countless examples of a jockey making a premature move on that vast oval.
The bottom line is I have faith that if Justify does not win this Saturday, it will not because Smith messed it up.
4. THE PACE SHOULD BE MUCH BETTER FOR HIM. With Justify breathing down pacesetter Promises Fulfilled’s neck early in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, the preliminary fractions were a torrid :22.24 and :45.77. Justify won by 2 1/2 lengths on a sloppy track. NBC’s Randy Moss pointed out that no horse in the 144-year history of the Kentucky Derby had ever won after going the opening quarter as fast as Justify.
In the Preakness, which again was contested on a sloppy strip, the early fractions of 23.11 and :47.19 were not as rapid as in the Kentucky Derby. But Justify found himself embroiled in a prolonged tussle for the lead with Good Magic. The duel between them continued for furlong…after furlong…after furlong, until Justify finally put away Good Magic in the final sixteenth. And then Justify had to stave off late challenges from Bravazo and Tenfold. Justify never, ever got a breather during the entire 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness, yet he still won by a half-length.
Mike Smith rode Justify in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. On Mike Willman’s radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles, Smith said this of Justify’s Preakness: “This is a horse who was in a dogfight for a good seven-eighths of a mile and still held off the competition. We should be commending him and not looking at him winning by only half a length.”
It seems there is an excellent chance Justify will not be tested as severely in the early stages of the Belmont as he was in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. If that is indeed what happens early in the Belmont, I think Justify’s opponents could be in big trouble.
5. HIS RUNNING STYLE. First, it’s good for Justify that he is versatile enough that he can either win while setting the pace or he can win when rating kindly from off the pace.
Second, based on how past Triple Crown sweepers have won the Belmont, Justify’s natural tactical speed should play well for this race.
Eight of the 12 Triple Crown winners were pace factors from the get-go in the Belmont. These four were not: Assault, Omaha, Sir Barton and Whirlaway. But even those four did not come from way back. In terms of running positions, no Triple Crown winner has ever been farther back than fourth at any point during the Belmont.
6. HOW HE HAS TRAINED SINCE THE PREAKNESS. Even though Justify was tested in the Preakness more than he ever had been before, I felt that his gallop-out after the finish was very good. Smith later confirmed that, saying Justify “wanted to gallop out” after the finish, with “wanted” being the operative word. “He actually galloped out really well,” Smith added.
Justify, who has been called “an eating machine” by outstanding assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, reportedly devoured his first meal after the Preakness. That’s another indication that Justify was not knocked out from his effort in the race.
Yet another positive sign for Justify going into the Belmont is he has not missed a beat in his training since the Preakness. He has exhibited zest in all of his gallops and workouts.
American Pharoah had two workouts between the Preakness and Belmont. Ten days after the Preakness, American Pharoah worked four furlongs in :48 flat at Churchill Downs. Six days later, on June 1, he worked five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 at Churchill.
Justify also will have had two workouts between the Preakness and Belmont. Ten days after the Preakness, Justify worked four furlongs in :46 4/5 at Churchill Downs. Six days later, on June 4, he worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5.
In Justify’s June 4 workout, he clicked off :12-ish eighths without ever being asked even a little bit by jockey Martin Garcia. The big colt’s splits were :12 4/5, :12 flat, :12 1/5, :11 4/5 and :12 3/5.
Justify even continued in :12-ish fashion in the gallop-out. After his five furlong workout, he galloped out the next eighth in :12 1/5 for a 1:13 3/5 clocking for six furlongs.
7. THE BIG MAIN TRACK. It is quite likely that Justify will absolutely adore competing on Belmont Park’s 1 1/2-mile oval, which is known for its sweeping turns.
With his size, Justify should be more comfortable running on such a large oval, much like another big colt, Easy Goer. In 1989, Easy Goer finished second to the smaller and more agile Sunday Silence in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But on Belmont Park’s 1 1/2-mile oval, Easy Goer won the Belmont by eight widening lengths to thwart Sunday Silence’s quest for Triple Crown glory. Easy Goer’s 2:26 clocking ties him with A.P. Indy for having the fastest final time in the history of the Belmont other than Secretariat’s other-worldly 2:24.
8. HIS BREEDING. The 1 1/2-mile Belmont will be Justify’s first time going farther than 1 1/4 miles. I would say his pedigree is not the greatest for a 1 1/2-mile race, but I think there are plenty of stamina influences in it for Justify to get the job done. Indeed, the blood of past Belmont Stakes winners galore is coursing through Justify’s veins, including Triple Crown winners Count Fleet, Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
These Belmont Stakes winners are in Justify’s pedigree:
1992 A.P. Indy
1977 Seattle Slew
1959 Sword Dancer
1957 Gallant Man
1953 Native Dancer
1943 Count Fleet
1925 American Flag
When it becomes crunch time for Justify in the final quarter-mile of his 1 1/2-mile journey this Saturday, he can reach back into his family tree and try to take after one of his ancestors who ran so well in the Belmont. Count Fleet won the Belmont by 25 lengths. Gallant Man set a track record of 2:26 3/5. Secretariat set an incredible track record of 2:24 flat when he won by 31 lengths. As mentioned earlier, A.P. Indy’s final time of 2:26 is tied with Easy Goer as the fastest in the history of the race other than Secretariat’s seemingly untouchable 2:24.
Another positive in Justify’s breeding vis-a-vis his stamina potential to win a 1 1/2-mile race is the presence not once, but twice of 1970 English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II. To sweep the English Triple Crown, Nijinsky II had to possess enough stamina to win the Two Thousand Guineas at one mile, the Epsom Derby at 1 1/2 miles, plus the St. Leger at one mile, six furlongs and 132 yards.
9. NO GOOD MAGIC, MCKINZIE OR AUDIBLE IN THE FIELD. Good Magic is the one who ran the best in the Kentucky Derby other than Justify. Good Magic is the one who took it to Justify right away in the Preakness, with the duo dueling for many furlongs until deep stretch. It has to help Super J that last year’s 2-year-old male champion is not in the Belmont.
If Justify had not come along, it might be Good Magic who would be going for a Triple Crown sweep. With no Justify, Good Magic more than likely would have won the Kentucky Derby. And with no Justify to duel with in the Preakness, Good Magic might well have won the Preakness.
Meanwhile, I believe there is a possibility that the second-best 3-year-old male in this crop also resides in the Baffert barn. McKinzie was being ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on most Kentucky Derby lists earlier this year just before a slight injury in a hind leg knocked him off the Triple Crown trail. McKinzie had been scheduled to run in the Santa Anita Derby, but when he had to miss that April 7 race due to the injury, Baffert ran Justify rather than send him to the April 14 Arkansas Derby.
Baffert recently said that he “was thinking Triple Crown with McKinzie” early this year. The absence in the Belmont of someone as good as McKinzie has to help Justify.
Audible is another absentee from the Belmont who some would have perceived to be a threat to Justify’s Triple Crown bid. Audible is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won the Belmont three times (Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malice in 2013 and Tapwrit in 2017). Audible ran quite well to finish third in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby, a mere head behind runner-up Good Magic.
There had been speculation that Audible might not run in the Belmont due to having overlapping ownership with Justify. However, according to Pletcher, Audible was taken out of consideration for the Belmont because he had not trained satisfactorily since the Kentucky Derby. It turned out that Audible not only isn’t in the Belmont, he has been taken out of training for the time being. According to Daily Racing Form’s David Grening, Audibile was to get a complete physical at a clinic in Kentucky.
Pletcher is trying to win this Saturday’s Belmont with Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso and Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy.
10. AN ABILITY TO WIN ON DIFFERENT TRACKS. Justify became first horse in more than 100 years to win the Kentucky Derby having previously raced at only one track. Prior to the Kentucky Derby, all three of Justify’s starts had come at Santa Anita. The last horse to do it was Regret, whose three career starts before the Kentucky Derby all had come at Saratoga the year before. All three of Super J’s three career starts prior to the Kentucky Derby had come at Santa Anita.
But Justify proved that he can win away from Santa Anita by capturing the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and Preakness at Pimlico.
Even though Justify has raced just five times, he already has demonstrated that he can win on a variety of surfaces. He has won twice when the track has been fast, twice when the track has been sloppy and once when the track has been muddy.
1. HE HAS NEVER RACED AT BELMONT. Justify has never raced on Belmont Park’s main track. While I feel the big 1 1/2-mile oval should be an ideal fit for a big Justify, a possible negative is the sandier composition of the surface than what you will find at many tracks. Many a horse has struggled at Belmont Park on the track they call “Big Sandy.”
Prior to American Pharoah, all 11 Triple Crown winners had made at least one start at Belmont Park prior to winning the Belmont Stakes.
Between Affirmed and American Pharoah, eight of the 11 horses who were defeated in the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line had not raced previously at Belmont Park. The only three of those 11 to have started previously at Belmont Park were Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony and Funny Cide.
Of course, once again, something Justify has going for him even though he has not raced at Belmont Park is he has the same trainer as American Pharoah, the lone Triple Crown winner who had not started on that track prior to the Belmont Stakes.
Additionally, it helps Justify that he is in the same boat as eight of his opponents this Saturday in not having raced over the track. The only entrant in the race this year to have already raced at Belmont is Blended Citizen, who won the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths on a wet track listed as good May 12.
2. THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF WHAT HAS BEEN ASKED OF HIM. The Triple Crown is, without question, a grind. It consists of three races at three different distances in five weeks at three different tracks. This arduous series tends to take both a physical and mental toll on those who run in all three races. Justify and Bravazo are the only two who will have run in all three races this year.
Justify’s bid for a Triple Crown sweep this Saturday comes just 111 days after he won his career debut at Santa Anita on Feb. 18. One can’t help but wonder if, after so much has been asked of Justify in such a short period of time, maybe it finally will catch up with him at some point, perhaps in the final quarter-mile of this Saturday’s Belmont. If Justify does succeed this Saturday, he certainly will deserve to be called Super J. He will become the only Triple Crown winner who did not race as a 2-year-old.
Some people who believe Justify is vulnerable in the Belmont point out that he is coming off his smallest margin of victory in the Preakness. In fact, his margins have steadily declined in each of his five races, something I do not recall seeing before.
Justify won his first race by 9 1/2 lengths, with his subsequent victories by 6 1/2 lengths, then three lengths, then 2 1/2 lengths, then a half-length. I’m expecting him to go against this trend in the Belmont. As I said earlier, I think he has a good chance to win the Belmont by a comfortable margin.
Other Justify doubters in terms of this Saturday’s Belmont point out that he is coming off a 97 Beyer Speed Figure in the Preakness, the lowest of his career.
It is understandable why so many are emboldened to run against Justify in the Belmont in light of his margin of victory and Beyer Speed Figure in the Preakness. If Justify had won the Preakness by daylight and earned another triple-digit Beyer, it is very likely the size of the field for this year’s Belmont Stakes would be smaller than 10.
3. THE SIZE OF THE FIELD. Once again, he really will be Super J if he wins this Saturday inasmuch as Justify is being asked to defeat more opponents in the Belmont than any of the 12 Triple Crown winners. Justify is facing nine foes. This is how many opponents the 12 Triple Crown winners have defeated in the Belmont:
2 Sir Barton (1919)
3 Gallant Fox (1930)
4 Omaha (1935)
6 War Admiral (1937)
3 Whirlaway (1941)
2 Count Fleet (1943)
6 Assault (1946)
7 Citation (1948)
4 Secretariat (1973)
7 Seattle Slew (1977)
4 Affirmed (1978)
7 American Pharoah (2015)
4. HE IS NOT THE 2-YEAR-OLD MALE CHAMPION. Six of the last seven Triple Crown winners had been the 2-year-old male champion -- American Pharoah, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation and Count Fleet.
Justify not only wasn’t the 2-year-old male champion, he did not even race at 2.
5. BAD SILKS KARMA. In terms of Justify’s ownership, WinStar Farm is the major shareholder. When Justify won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Mike Smith wore WinStar’s mostly white silks. But Sue Finley of the Thoroughbred Daily News reported on May 30 that Smith will be wearing the red and yellow silks of the co-owner China Horse Club in the Belmont Stakes, according to Eden Harrington, vice president of the China Horse Club.
“The China Horse Club and WinStar Farm share the use of colors on the horses we race in partnership,” Harrington said. “Every fourth start, a horse will race in China Horse Club silks. The sharing of silks ensures both the WinStar brand and China Horse Club brand are promoted.”
Man oh man. I was shocked when I read that. After Justify won the first two legs of the Triple Crown while carrying WinStar’s silks, will changing to the China Horse Club’s silks be bad luck for the third leg? If Justify does win this Saturday, I’d have to think he would become the first Triple Crown winner not to race under the same silks in all three races.
But time after time, Justify has flouted historical precedence. Time after time, he has continually lived up to the high praise Baffert had for him after the April 7 Santa Anita Derby when the trainer said Justify was just “a phenomenal talent.” And now this megastar is on the precipice of Triple Crown immortality.